If a president would take the country to war on the possibility of a nuclear threat that even he says is not imminent, then to what lengths would he go if it were a certainty that nuclear weapons were about to fall into the wrong hands?
That's the question Chris Stewart examines in "The Fourth Option," his most ambitious military thriller yet.
As a former B-1 pilot who used to fly around with a planeload of nukes, Stewart knows something of the contingency plans the military would have to recover such weapons-and they don't involve congressional debates, UN resolutions, or diplomatic haggling with irresolute allies.
While other techno-thriller authors vie for attention by creating such wild scenarios as a Russo-German alliance threatening to launch World War III in Europe, Stewart finds enough threats in today's real world. In "The Fourth War," he takes the very real fear that a coup in Pakistan could lead to a loss of control over that country's nuclear arsenal, and he fashions a scenario that is as hair-raising as it is possible.
Unlike most novels in the genre, Stewart's tale opens with a small-scale confrontation in a place where the only significant way life has changed in the past 1,000 years is the arrival of firearms. Peter Zembeic is a CIA paramilitary operative hunting al-Qaida leaders in the rugged mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Zembeic's clandestine meeting with a terrified Arab girl sent by his prime informant goes tragically wrong but not before she delivers a message that puts the American command structure into a near-panic mode. Because of the logistics of Zembeic's operation, Israeli intelligence also gets a heads-up.
The warning is too late to stop a far-reaching coup in Pakistan that wipes out most of the pro-Western leadership, but it gives the United States a head start on operations to stop the ultimate nightmare scenario-Pakistan's 24 nuclear warheads being taken by terrorists.
Zembeic's best friend is Shane Bradley, the commander of a B-2 bomber wing who has been coordinating with the Israelis and providing occasional air support to Zembeic's operations. Bradley is recalled stateside to prepare for a desperate bombing mission, fitted with bunker-busting nuclear weapons in case Zembeic's strike team fails.
And they do. The Delta strike team arrives to find an armory filled with corpses and emptied of nuclear warheads. All is not lost, but the warheads are located in a place so remote that even Zembeic's team would not be able to mount a recovery operation. Thus, the task falls to Bradley and his B-2s.
Meanwhile, foreign policy takes on a new edge and urgency, as the president ruthlessly moves to enlist fence-sitting allies to cast their lots. However, it is an ally whose dedication has never been in doubt that will take dangerous and daring actions that just may lead to disaster.
"The Fourth War" races through its believable doomsday scenario with breakneck speed, careening around as many twists and turns as the mountain trails Zembeic must navigate. Stewart, who is mostly acclaimed for his edge-of-the-cockpit missions in past books, proves himself even more adept on the ground, here.
Though this has plenty of Stewart's signature great flying scenes, the fate of the world just may come down to a man on a horse.
Chris Stewart belongs in the top flight of military thriller writers. His crystal ball is also working better than most, as his books, in order, have preceded world events in a breakaway Soviet republic, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. His books are smarter than Vince Flynn's, more authentic than Dale Brown's and definitely faster moving than Tom Clancy's.